Is Saudi Arabia playing with Pakistan on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, in a similar way as Iran acted previously in 1994?
Diplomatic sources in Pakistan say that Saudi Arabia has shown reluctance to accept Islamabad’s request for an immediate meeting of the foreign ministers of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
While speaking at a think-tank in Malaysia, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan voiced frustration over the OIC’s silence on Kashmir. He said: “The reason is that we have no voice and there is a total division amongst [us]. We can’t even come together as a whole on the OIC meeting on Kashmir.”
Cut to March 1994. On a winter morning, with the Alborz Mountains overlooking Tehran airport were still under snow, braving cold winds, a special Indian military plane touched down. Onboard was then ailing External Affairs Minister Dinesh Singh, along with three others. Barely able to walk, Singh had been dragged out of a hospital bed by then-Prime Minister Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao to deliver a personal and a secret letter to Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Having mortgaged its gold reserves in 1992, India was on the economic brink and its old friend Russia was still licking its wounds after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The OIC was pushing a resolution at the Office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), later rechristened as Human Rights Council, to condemn India for human rights violations in Kashmir. The resolution, in case of approval, was to be referred to the UN Security Council for initiating economic sanctions and other punitive measures against India. The decisions in the OIC are adopted by consensus.
Recalling how India was saved from disgrace, former Indian career diplomat M K Bhadrakumar believes that Rao had shrewdly prevailed upon Iran to abstain from voting.
“Once there is no consensus in the OIC, the resolution was bound to fall through,” said Bhadrakumar, who has served as India’s envoy in Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey.
The Iranians had no clue to the Indian minister’s mission. Casting aside protocol, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati was at the airport when Singh alighted. Velayati asked what on earth could be of such momentous importance for Singh to risk a perilous journey in his precarious condition. In reply, Dinesh Singh smilingly handed over a demarche.
In the day, he went through his “Kashmir brief” diligently in meetings with his Iranian interlocutors, namely, Velayati, President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iranian Majlis Speaker Nateq Nouri. By evening, Singh returned to his hospital bed in New Delhi, but with an assurance from President Rafsanjani to Prime Minister Rao “that Iran will do all it can to ensure that no harm comes to India.”
- Iran killed OIC resolution
Only after 72 anxious hours did New Delhi learn that Iran had killed the OIC move to table the resolution. This marked a new chapter in India-Iran relations with wider consequences. Iran distanced itself from Pakistan in the matter of Afghanistan; and, India joined hands with Iran to promote the Northern Alliance, which was inimical to Pakistani interests.
Pakistan was shocked by what it termed as “backstabbing”. What Iran gained is a mystery? But events show that Rao had promised to grant a kind of self-rule and to give Pakistan access in the affairs and progress of Jammu and Kashmir. A year later, Rao while attending the Non-Aligned Movement summit in the West African country of Burkina Faso declared that the sky is the limit concerning the quantum of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. He also envisaged a gas pipeline from Iran via Pakistan calling it a peace pipeline.
The Indian delegation to the OHCHR led by leader of the opposition Atal Behari Vajpayee comprised Minister of State for External Affairs Salman Khurshid and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Farooq Abdullah, now detained under the stringent Public Safety Act. Basking in this diplomatic victory, Vajpayee and Abdullah were unaware that, three days ago, Dinesh Singh had laid the ground for it in Tehran. Rao also never tried to steal the credit from them. Abdullah later said he had joined Indian delegation, after receiving a promise from the prime minister that the pre-1953 constitutional status will be restored that envisaged greater self-rule and opening of Line of Control -- a de facto border that divides the Kashmir valley between Pakistan and India -- with Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Much later, it came to be known that when the Pakistani ambassador supported by Saudi envoy sought to move the OIC resolution, the Iranian diplomat in Geneva, under orders from Tehran, backed out. He argued that as a close friend of both India and Pakistan, Iran was ready to sort out their problems and there was no need to raise these at an international forum. That was the last time Pakistan tried to get a resolution on the Kashmir issue tabled in a UN forum.
- Full circle, roles reversed
Now, the wheel has come full circle. 26 years later, while Iran has returned to supporting Pakistan on Kashmir, backing from Riyadh has dried up. In a role reversal, over the past few days, reports said Saudi Arabia has made several proposals to Pakistan to avoid the meeting of foreign ministers including holding a parliamentary forum or speakers’ conference from Muslim countries. Islamabad’s position has been that speakers’ meeting is not commensurate with the seriousness of the situation in Kashmir. Pakistan also fears that parliamentary meeting will be used for Iran bashing as Speaker of Saudi Shura Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim al Sheikh had undertaken to lobby in this regard.
According to Amir Rana, a Pakistani strategic expert, Pakistan’s geo-economic and strategic challenges make it difficult for the country to fully cooperate or annoy either of the two blocs. “Pakistan is caught in a dilemma where its heart is in the Malaysian-Turkish bloc, which has been openly supporting Pakistan’s Kashmir cause, but its mind is with the Saudi-led bloc, which has money and political influence that Pakistan needs for its struggling economy,” he said.
Kashmir remains a core Pakistani foreign policy objective and, thus, an easy way to win the country’s goodwill. But this is not enough for sustaining geo-economic and strategic interests. The diplomatic posture of a nation becomes more balanced and comprehensive when architects of its foreign policy have diverse economic, socio-cultural and political determinants insight. Indeed, there is a lot for Pakistan to ponder over when it sees some of its close friends not supporting it on Kashmir.
But the international community, in general, has shown its anxiety about gross human rights violations being committed in India-held Kashmir. Apart from human rights groups and international media, different forums have also been showing concern. It would increase pressure on India but this is not going to translate into support for the implementation of the UN resolutions on Kashmir. It is a real challenge for Pakistan’s diplomacy to cultivate such support within the divided blocs of the Muslim world.
By Iftikhar Gilani
(The writer is a chief correspondent at the English Desk of Anadolu Agency, and an expert on South Asian affairs.)